Leading in Japan is distinct and different from other countries. The language, culture and size of the economy make sure of that. We can learn by trial and error or we can draw on real world practical experience and save ourselves a lot of friction, wear and tear. This podcasts offers hundreds of episodes packed with value, insights and perspectives on leading here. The only other podcast on Japan which can match the depth and breadth of this Leadership Japan Series podcast is the Japan's Top Business interviews podcast.
548 As Leaders In Japan Let’s Can The Orders And Use Stories Instead
As leaders, we are busy bees. We are buzzing around, going from meeting to meeting. We are getting together with clients over lunch, touching base with HQ, handling the media, talking to HR about our people and a host of other important activities. Usually poor time managers, we are constantly hemmed in by the demands on our schedules. The upshot is we are constantly looking for corners to cut, minutes to be shaved off regular activities and feeling oppressed by the overwhelming workload we face. The common victim in all of this is our leader's communication with our team. We have found we can save time if we get straight to the point and then we can move on. We are packaging up orders to be given to get the team moving. Orders are given and we move on to the next activity.
We commonly forget to talk about the big picture, the background, the context, the WHY of what we want done. We give the staff the short headline version of what we want done. We expect them to fill in the detail themselves, as we sleekly glide off to our next meeting, leaving them flummoxed in our wake. We are saving time, but in reality, we are slowing everything down. If the staff don’t understand what we want, they will do a version of it. Later, we find out that is not what we expected. We immediately get cranky because we have lost time and now we have to unwind what they have done and replace it with the correct version. This is doubling the workload, including our own.
Recently, I introduced a new project which had elements required from a previous project. I had told the team members what I wanted and a couple of years sail by. When I wanted some elements from the previous project, I found out that they had not done what I wanted. I thought I was clear about it, expected they understood my needs, but I made a fatal error – I didn’t check. I was busy. I had already moved on to the next thing. Ouch!
On reflection, I saw I had just issued an order which was crystal clear to me, but that was all I did. I didn’t spend enough time with them at the outset to explain the WHY behind what I wanted. I didn’t make time to communicate the context to them. Even if my explanation wasn’t genius, if they have the context, the chances are high they would do what I wanted automatically, because they got it. None of that happened.
I should have made remembering and understanding what I wanted clearer by wrapping it up in a story. We are only so so at recalling facts, data and numbers, but we are really excellent at recalling stories. Did I do that? No. I just blurted out the order in double time and promptly departed. Don’t you know I am a busy boss?
Did my story have to be a substantial precis of War and Peace? No. I could have spent two minutes telling them the Why, wrapping it up in the context, told as a compelling story. I could have aligned the reasoning for the project with the background. I could have mentioned the necessity for this project, how it came up, who was involved, where I was when I first got involved, who I was with, etc. All of this little detail is important because our objective is to mentally transport the listener to where we were at the time. If we can get them to come with us in their imagination, then we will be very successful in also getting them to support the WHY.
When we have the same context and background, we usually come to the same conclusions. In fact, before we have even gotten to the part in the story about what needs to happen next, they have already raced ahead and worked it out for themselves. There is no convincing needed by us, because they have concluded the appropriate course of action – surprise, surprise - the same one we are recommending.
They may come to a different conclusion after all, but that is fine. They may actually come up with an idea which is better than ours. The chances of their idea being radically d
547 Building Blocks To Leadership In Japan
There are many paths to the mountaintop in the leadership area. Today, let’s go back to the practical realities of getting others to listen to you and, even more importantly, to follow you. My favourite quote on leadership is from Yogi Berra, the American baseball coach rather infamous for murdering the English language. He said something profound though, when he noted: “Leading is easy. It is getting people to follow you, which is hard”.
If nobody likes you, what are your chances of uniting the team behind you? Pretty dismal would be the obvious conclusion. How many bosses are likeable, though? Often, they are demons, autocrats, channelling Genghis Khan for ideas on how to lead the team. They enforce compliance, but don’t foster engagement. Their influence on what is possible for the team is limited in scope.
Understanding the members of the team and what each individual wants is a good place to start to reverse the lack of engagement. When they scold staff, this creates barriers and subterranean resistance. Handing out praise may not have been a feature of how they grew up in leadership, but in today’s modern business world, they need to learn how to do this. Being a good listener and encouraging others to talk, rather than barking out orders all the time, is the smarter move. Smiling, rather than maintaining a permanent frown, would be a good change to make. Communicating the value their staff brings to the organisation is a key to helping them feel what they do is important and that they are important.
Getting the team to accept your ideas can be achieved by pulling rank and threatening staff with removal. It doesn’t get anyone particularly enthusiastic to do what the boss says though, let alone go the extra mile. Resentment and discouragement become the order of the day. In this permanent war for talent in Japan, the allergy to mid-career hires has evaporated and they can walk out the door to the warm embrace of your competitors.
We can show our humanity by not holding the team to a standard that we don’t apply to ourselves. If we are wrong, we should admit it quickly and emphatically. This says to the team, “I am not perfect and I don’t expect perfection from you either”. We should never say, “you are wrong” when they venture forth an idea or proposal. That kills the creativity spark right there and creates resentment. Let them do most of the talking, even if it is killing us to shut up. This encourages staff to have ownership of the execution of our ideas. Trying to see things for the staff member’s point of view will help them feel understood and therefore more committed to reach the team goals.
We need excellent communication skills to let the staff members feel the idea is theirs rather than ours. We can use the Socratic Method of asking questions to lead them to self-discovery. This is very empowering, and they will get right behind their own idea more than getting excited about executing on our direction on what needs to happen. When they suggest things to us, we shouldn’t be dismissing their idea out of hand. Yes, we may have more experience than them and yes, we may have tried that failed idea before. The point is, we want them to be engaged. Taking their idea seriously is a key step to making that a reality.
Being a leader isn’t about having the baton tucked up under our arm and issuing orders right and left. Asking questions is a much better way to get people to follow us. They feel included in the decision-making process. That sense of ownership brings more energy to the completion of the tasks. Again, our communication capability is critical to have our team happy about doing what we suggest. We should try to avoid having to use position power to get things done. We want volunteers rather than the “volunteered”.
Mistakes will always happen and how we handle them makes all the difference. I have se
546 The Required Leader Communication Skills In Japan
You would think that organisations choose their leaders because they are skilled in communication. What is the job after all, but communicating with the team to make sure everyone is clear about what they have to do and to encourage them to do it? Well you would be wrong! Leaders are usually selected for promotion because they are very good, often the best, at their current job. It is assumed that they will be the best person to lead the team on that basis.
Just as we know that the talented sports person doesn’t necessarily migrate those skills into leadership roles as a successful coach, neither does the talented functional specialist transform into a successful leader. The gun sales rep doesn’t become a great sales team leader. The best architect doesn’t make the best choice to lead other draftsmen and women. The list just goes on and on and we wonder why we keep repeating the same errors? One aspect of that difficulty is that it is hard to see the immediate results of leadership, unless they really screw things up and people start quitting in droves.
There is the rub. In the “goode olde days”, it didn’t matter. You just lose one and simply get a replacement. In the 1990s, I remember getting twenty or thirty resumes to go through, to fill a sales position. Now, if you can find anyone, you feel blessed. The competition for talent is a remorseless zero-sum game. As leaders, if we cannot communicate well with our people, we will face irreconcilable supply and demand issues. We will have to spend a lot of time and money to rectify our mistakes as our people will vote with their feet and leave the organisation.
How can leaders improve their communication skills? There are tons of things to work on, but let’s look at two specific items.
1. I try to synchronise with the staff member when they are speaking by putting myself in their shoes.
Bosses have poor memories. They conveniently forget about how they were at the same age and stage as their staff. They imagine they were perfectly formed and with no blemishes when they were coming up through the ranks. Not true. Like everyone working for us, we also made a host of mistakes in our careers, and that is how we educated ourselves.
Rather than putting on the superior boss hat when speaking to staff, let’s try to cast our mind back to our own shortcomings and inadequacies at the same point in our career. This is a humbling exercise and bound to make us more sympathetic with the people who work for us, rather than getting annoyed with their work progress.
We can change the tone of how we speak with them to be less abrupt. We can be more keen to have them relax with us, so that they can feel confident sharing their ideas or issues. We can stop telling them what to do and how to do it. Instead, we can ask them for their opinion on what and how we should do things around here.
We don’t cut them off when they are talking and we will encourage them to try things, even though we doubt that it is going to work. We do this because we know that is how we learnt. We tried stuff and then sorted out the successes from the failures. We are communicating a lot of trust when we do it this way, rather than micro-managing the hell out of the team.
2. I observe the staff member for non-verbal clues
Busy bosses are prone to shortcut everything. They are moving from meeting to meeting, trying to squeeze in their own emails between slots and generally feeling frustrated with the overload. Feeling totally time poor, they like to get to the meat of the issues straight away. They want to cut out any down time, like having to listen to a detailed explanation from staff, when they could get the summary much faster. This tends to become an internal dialogue between the boss and themselves, where they are concentrated on their frustration with their own lack of time and not with the person with whom t
545 Leaders Need To Be Excellent Listeners In Japan
Leaders may not even be aware that they are poor listeners. They are very focused on telling others what to do. Being time poor, they are very focused on their own messaging, rather than the messaging efforts of others. In the war for talent in Japan, that could be a fatal move. One of the biggest factors driving engagement in Japan is the feeling that the boss values you. If the leader isn’t really listening to the team members, they are not stupid and they will pick up on this. Before you know it, they have fled to greener pastures. They are off to your competitor, and the arduous and expensive task of replacing them begins. We don’t want that.
Here are some hints on making sure you are a gold medal winning listening boss.
1. You display an open and accepting attitude toward the speaker
This sounds easy, but are we doing it? Have we stopped the noise in our own brain to refocus on the person in front of us and not let that internal message competition diminish our capacity to listen to what we are being told? Are we in a neutral mindset and not bringing up silent annoyances from past associations with this person? Maybe they screwed something up recently and your mind is having flashbacks while they are talking to you and you are thinking about what happened.
How is your body language control? I remember I caught myself shaking my head in disagreement while someone was telling me their idea. It was something I didn’t agree with and I was showing it. It was an automatic physical reaction. I realised right there that I couldn’t allow that to happen again. Now, I try to keep a strong lock on my body language, in case I am communicating a negative message.
2. When someone approaches me with a question, I stop what I am doing and give them my full attention
I worked with a fellow Division Head once who was a shocker. When I visited his workstation, he had three screens set up and while I was sitting there talking; he continued to multi-task. He would type away, reading the screen and listening to me, all at the same time. It was a total insult in my mind. His self-awareness was dismally low and I remember how it made me feel. So, I made a pact with myself to never do this to others.
Whenever my staff comes to me while I am typing, I physically lift the keyboard up and rest it against my computer stand to show I am not doing anything else but listening to them. I find this a good discipline, because when I am concentrating, the temptation is to type and listen at the same time – bad idea!
3. I concentrate on what is being said even if it is of little interest to me
I saw a dramatic demonstration of this by my old boss. He was a senior Director in the firm and had a very big job. One evening, I was sitting in his office as he was explaining something to me, when one of the secretaries popped her head in the door to say something to him as she was leaving. It was a light comment from her, nothing particularly important, but he stopped talking to me immediately and gave her his 100% concentration. I thought “Wow, that is impressive”. He made her feel like a million dollars. No wonder he was one of the most popular leaders in that hierarchical, tough, hard edged, cutthroat world of serious big ticket real estate.
It is hard to focus on things we don’t consider important, because so much of our day is taken up with Quadrant One urgent and important items. The interruption seems like a waste of our valuable time. It might be important to them, but not to us. We have a lot to do baby, so the temptation is to brush them off and get back to the grindstone. We have to overcome that habit and really appreciate that this topic is important to them. If they are important to the firm, then we have to give them our full attention to show we value them.
4. I try to understand the viewpoint of the person who I d
544 How Leaders Can Apply The S-Curve Effect to Developing Team Members in Japan
The S-Curve is a very simple concept. Over time, a newly promoted employee goes through distinct stages in their performance achievement. Initially, their performance declines as they grapple with the new set of responsibilities. Gradually they get the swing of things and start to do well at their new accountabilities. After a period of becoming comfortable with their role, they start to stagnate as they stop growing.
Within these stages are many nuances. We select people for promotion based on their history and our hope for their future. We expect that good work and result production in the current role is an important indicator of talent and ability and that these attributes can be transferred into their leadership role.
One of the astounding things about modern business in Japan is that firms abandon these individuals at this point. Puzzlingly, they do not provide their newly promoted leaders with any great assistance to succeed. The newly promoted are given the baton of command and left to themselves to use trial and error or copying what their previous bosses did, to work out how to lead. Sounds like a plan except what if their previous boss role models were totally mediocre leaders. This is how to create generational decline in a business and nobody would be voting for that.
You really have to wonder how we could still be using such a failed model in this modern day and age, in such a sophisticated country like Japan? This country has a constant, savage battle for market share, going on across all industries. The struggle for survival is real and yet the development of the people in middle management who can make a difference is being hamstrung by inertia. Companies just keep doing what they have always done. That is not very smart if your competitor is making the changes to succeed and you are not.
Part of the issue is that promoting one person doesn’t fit into any comfortable time frame for the machine. If ten people get promoted at the same time, then perhaps some group training can be arranged. The green eye shade types hunkered down in the accounting department run the numbers, calculate the per head cost, the per hour numbers and conclude that this is doable. However, if it is just one person, then the calculations blow up and the required training gets the thumbs down as too expensive.
Consequently, there is no mechanism for developing these new leaders to play the role they have been handpicked for. Individual coaching is ruled out as too expensive for such a low-level position. For the senior Directors of course, an Executive Coach is deemed an acceptable expense, but not so for the newly minted section head. It is a case of “congratulations, work hard and good luck” and that is the full extent of the training programme. Here is a hint for everyone - look for training companies like us, who offer public classes on leadership, where you can ship the newly promoted person off to a class with others in similar situations, assembled together from other industries and companies. This is not hard and it is not expensive.
In the meantime, the new leader is struggling to work out what they should be doing in this unfamiliar leadership role. Of course, the section targets haven’t been adjusted down to account for their struggle or lack of experience in this new role. Initially, they work much harder than before as a player/manager to get to the required numbers. This works for this first year and then what happens? The next year the targets are higher again, and they are doing even more individual work. Not much leading is underway to get to the target for which they have responsibility because they don’t have any time. They are not leveraging the team to produce a team result. Heroically they are trying to do it all by themselves. By year three, they blow-up and can’t match the increase in targets. Then the machine concludes they are a dud as a lead
543 Common Leadership Shortcomings We Need To Avoid in Japan
As leaders are we all perfect? Are we perfect all the time? Obviously, the answer is “no” to both counts, but that doesn’t mean we always face up to our own shortcomings. An important part of growing and improving as a leader is to be honest about who we really are. Let’s go through some common areas where leaders can improve.
This uninspiring tag covers a vast majority of leaders. Ask yourself, “how many of my previous bosses would I describe as inspiring?” The answer for most people is usually none or one. Now ask yourself, “if someone surveyed my team members, how many would say I was inspiring?” This type of reality check is useful because it can help us become better in some key leadership areas. What contributes to a leader being seen as uninspiring? It usually relates to a lack of enthusiasm, someone going through the motions with no great passion. This is reflected in how they communicate. The voice is dull, the energy low, the fire in the belly has long since smoldered out. As a consequence, they lack direction for themselves and therefore cannot provide it for the team. They are not leading an intentional life for themselves.
Leaders are not robots and we go through our ups and downs in business. An important part of what we do is to provide electricity for our people. That spark inside us ignites a spark in them. If our spark has been eclipsed, then we need to reignite it. That means finding meaning in what we do. It means going back to the basics of what we do as a leader and rediscover the fundamentals of our role and why we are here. If we cannot manage that, we won’t be around for very long as the organisation soon realizes we are not providing any particular value to the firm. Find some aspect of the work which provides enjoyment. Start there and try to build on that scope to include more tasks and gradually rebuild your enthusiasm for being the leader.
2. Over-Focused On Self
It would be a hard task to find anyone who isn’t overly focused on themselves in this modern business world of sudden layoffs, deadly mergers and bankruptcies. Leaders are not immune to these fears. Self-preservation gets more intense as you climb up the greasy pole and start costing the firm more dough. Recently. a friend of mine here at a prestigious financial firm was asked to leave because his subordinate, who he developed, would take over as his bosses could save money this way. So much for his long loyalty to the company and no wonder we become cynical.
Over-focus in this context though means not being concerned about the people under you and just looking out for yourself. Actually, we can do both. Notwithstanding my friends recent unfortunate collision with boss greed, we can protect ourselves and develop our team. They are not mutually exclusive objectives. Over-focus on us means not delegating tasks so that others can develop their career path. They need to impress an interview panel that they can step up and do the job because they have some valuable experience in relevant parts of it.
Delegation is not dumping one’s work on to others. It is growing the people under you. We have to stop saying things like “it will be quicker if I do it myself”. Instead, we have to devote some of our highly valuable time to developing others to have them learn the tasks.
3. Not Accountable
Perfhaps we are an avid resister of feedback. We literally trash the 360-degree feedback because it is painful to read what others think about us, when they have the chance to freely express their views in a way which cannot be traced back to them individually. Of course, we can all improve and even if the comments are “wrong” from our point of view, we accept that there is that perception of us. We can work on improving that perception.
If we ignore it, then retribution isn’t far away. Before you know it, you
Love Dale Carnegie Training